It has become a running joke in the house that “Dad” is obsessed with educational shows. I won’t deny it; I like documentaries. Almost every Sunday morning, my family discovers me watching some form of non-fiction as I make vegan, gluten-free pancakes for them. I recently watched a documentary that was so moving to me, that I must use this post to share it with you.
Tim’s Vermeer (2013) is one of the coolest and most engaging documentaries I have ever seen. It is part history, part science, part art, part engineering, part quest, part discovery, part world travel, part human nature. This film, written and produced by Penn and Teller and directed by Penn Jillette himself, is the story of Tim Jenison’s quest to identify the methods used by his favorite painter, Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch Baroque Period painter who was known for the stunningly realistic, almost photographic, quality of his work. In an era where art was characterized by rich deep colors and mastery of shadows and light (chiaroscuro), Vermeer’s work stood out as being especially photo realistic.
Tim Jenison (the “Tim” in Tim’s Vermeer) is an inventor and the founder of NewTech, a computer graphics company known for the 3D modeling software LightWave 3D, which has given him the resources to pursue his passions, including art. For this particular quest, Tim was inspired by a book called Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of Old Masters (2001), by artist David Hockney as well as another called Vermeer’s Camera (2001) by Philip Steadman, both of which posited that Vermeer, as well as several other of the most successful and revered artists throughout history, were aided by camera obscura to effectively “trace” their subjects.
After experimenting with a camera obscura, Jenison could see that such technologies certainly would have been helpful and may indeed help explain some things. He became convinced that this technology was involved in supporting artists like Vermeer. However, by itself, the camera obscura would not have been sufficient for the kinds of results in Vermeer’s work. Tim demonstrates this by building a room-sized camera obscura and discovering that the projected light would be impossible to “trace” due to the swallowing of his paint colors by the light.
Not being deterred, Jenison continued to iterate on this concept. Eventually, through reflection and experimentation, he had an epiphany. He wondered if the camera obscura was combined with a small mirror, which would solve many of the limitations of the camera obscura itself. For one, the mirror would reverse the inverted image back to being right-side-up.
Tim started to experiment with using a small round mirror, positioned directly over his canvas, to reflect the projected image back to him. He found that this simple addition allowed the painter to match the color and tone of his subject precisely by looking back and forth between the canvas and the reflected image. Jenison says, “when the color is the same, the mirror edge disappears.” Despite his lack of painting skill or experience, this breakthrough enabled him to quickly achieve stunning results for painting high fidelity versions of photographs and three-dimensional objects. Right out of the gate, using this method, Jenison created an amazingly accurate copy of a family photograph in just five hours.
As you might imagine, the camera obscura theory, as well as Jenison’s extension of it, has elicited controversy. Not everyone agrees that there is a smoking gun here. And, truly, there is no real way to prove these theories. However, Penn Jillette and Tim Jenison’s energy and persistence come about as close as possible to doing so, presenting such a compelling story, that it is difficult to imagine it happening any other way. While I do not want to spoil your own discovery of this gem, I will share a couple of examples of the kinds of evidence that helps to form a very compelling case. X-rays of Vermeer’s works reveal no underlying sketches, as are commonly found beneath the layers of paint of most masterpieces. Further, anomalies, such as chromatic aberration, that come from imperfections in lenses, can be found in Vermeer’s paintings once you start to look for them. Trust me, there are many more fascinating revelations in this film.
What I like most about Tim Jenison’s exploration of this topic is that he approaches his investigation from an action-oriented mindset. The question driving him is, “How can I create my own Vermeer using the same constraints that would have existed in mid-1660’s Netherlands?” The question is especially intriguing, given that Jenison has no background or experience as a painter. In fact, he spends over a year building an exact replica of the room from Vermeer’s The Music Lesson (1665) and then applying his little-tested method to painting his own imitation of the original work. Regardless of the results (and you can see those for yourself when you watch!), the journey is fascinating. In many ways we see him answering another compelling question along the way— “How can I prove what I know in my bones to be true?”
I see in Jenison a kindred spirit—a tinkerer who needs to find answers for himself. I loved watching him teach himself how to grind and polish his own lenses using materials and techniques contemporary to Vermeer. He built his own harpsichord, even shaping the legs on a lathe that he cut in half and put back together so it would be big enough. He taught himself how to mix pigments and create wonderfully rich colors of paint with the materials and constraints of that age. He persisted until the end, despite many challenges and the typical waning motivation that accompanies a quest of this duration. In the end, I am as satisfied as he seems to be, both with his creation and with the answers that he delivers.
I may not have his resources, but I sure hope that during my second or third acts I am able to make a contribution or two of this caliber. I am truly inspired. I hope you will be as well.